As you are probably aware, I am looking at ways for our family to reduce our carbon footprint. The first area I looked at was our upcoming car change and whether we could improve our carbon footprint in that area.
But another area we are also looking at in tandem with this, is changing our diet to help reduce our carbon footprint.
The impact of food on our family’s carbon footprint
Depending on which study you look at, the production of food and drink makes up around 15-25% of the total greenhouse gas emissions for the UK – that’s between 1/6 and 1/5 of our total emissions. So what we eat (or don’t eat) can have a big impact[i].
(Across the world, agriculture accounts for close to 30% of all emissions.)
Meat has a bigger climate footprint than fruits and vegetables do — partly because meat takes more energy to produce, but also because cows tend to produce a lot of methane. (Cows, in turn, have a larger impact than pigs or chickens.)[ii]
So, high level: cut down on (or cut out) your meat consumption.
Reducing our family’s carbon footprint, while improving our health
However, some people worry that when they reduce their meat intake, they won’t get enough protein. But the protein intake for most age groups far exceeds the (US) government’s recommendations: Men age 19-70+ 56 grams of protein per day. A recent survey showed that (US) mean on average consumed around 88-109 grams of protein per day – nearly twice as much.[iii]
In comparison, in 2015, only 26% of adults ate the government recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, according to UK government statistics (pdf)[iv]. So if we all shifted our diet towards fruit and vegetables, and away from animal products, we could reduce our food carbon emissions by 20-30%, which in term could be up to a 6% reduction in the UK’s overall emissions – just by eating what we should be.
Simply by following the UK government’s recommended diet, not only would we improve our own health, but greenhouse emissions are estimated to be 29% lower than emissions from the UK average diet. However, unfortunately, when the impact of food waste is factored into, this figure falls to 17%. Professor Paul Behrens explains:
“Food waste is over a third once you take into account production, processing and domestic food wastes. If you include all the emissions from food production, then the difference in the diets becomes smaller because you are still wasting a lot of food.”
So as well as upping our fruit and vegetable in-take, and reducing our meat consumption, we equally need to reduce our food waste.
The best diet for reducing one’s greenhouse gas emissions and carbon footprint
Unsurprisingly, a vegan diet is likely to be best for the environment.
According to a study published in 2017, red meat can have up to 100 times the environmental impact of plant based food. (According to some estimates, beef gives off more than six pounds of carbon dioxide per serving; the amount created per serving by rice, legumes carrots, apples or potatoes is less than half a pound.)[v]
In the UK, vegan diets product on average 6.4 pounds of carbon-dioxide per day. That is, the average vegan diet's carbon footprint was about 60 percent lighter than the average diet heavy in meat (15.8 pounds of CO2 a day).
The average UK vegetarian diet, produces the equivalent of about 8.4 pounds of carbon-dioxide per day — around half as much as a heavy-meat diet.[vi]
However, if you simply replace that meat with dairy, for example, your greenhouse gas emissions could rise again. Marco Springmann – a senior researcher on environmental sustainability and public health at the University of Oxford – warns that deep net fishing can emit as much greenhouse gas as beef[vii].
It’s a very tricky path to navigate.
The best diet for the environment without going meat free
If you can’t face going fully meat free, the best meats to cut down on are from sheep and cows, the animals that produce the most greenhouse gases, in the form of methane.
The average "high-meat" diet in Britain produced the equivalent of 15.8 pounds of carbon-dioxide per day. "High Meat" is defined as anything more than 3.5 ounces per day, or about one chicken breast. Apparently, the average British person eats about twice that much meat. People who eat more meat will have an even bigger footprint![viii]
If you cut out one hamburger a week, over a year you would have cut your carbon footprint by 604kg — around the equivalent of a return flight to Spain.
And research from Oxford University found that if EVERY family in the UK swapped out a red meat based meal for a plant-based alternative just once a week, the environmental impact would be equivalent to taking 16 million cars off the road[ix].
The average pescatarian diet (vegetarian plus some fish) was roughly as climate-friendly as the average vegetarian diet at 8.4 pounds of CO2 emitted per person per day.[x]
Interestingly, the difference between a heavy meat eater and a light meat eater was actually bigger (2.5 pounds) than the difference between a light meat eater and a vegetarian (1.9 pounds). This shows that eating less meat can have a significant impact — even if you don’t give it up all together.
One article recently looked at the effect of simply reducing the average person’s meat intake to just 152 calories of meat a day (the WHO’s target for a healthy diet) – they assumed the mix of meat (beef, chicken and pork) stayed the say as today. The result was that just by implementing this reduction in consumption (not going totally vegan) the calculator they were using said the world was only on track for approximately 2.5°C of global warming by 2100.
Now this is still WAY above where we need to be! We should not get complacent. We should do everything we can in all areas of our life to reduce our personal carbon footprints, as well as put pressure on large corporations and governments to do the same – or better!
I include this paragraph to show that doing a little actually does do a lot. It does not have to be all or nothing, it just needs to be a significant something.
Eating seasonally helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions (sometimes literally!)
However, when you are increasing your fruit and vegetable in-take, it’s not as easy as ‘eat the product with the least air miles’. Seasonality also plays a part.
While some vegetables might be better to buy in the UK in summer, you should choose those raised in more temperate climes during winter, so that carbon isn’t emitted heating greenhouses to grown them in.
But…. only as long as they’re transported by ship rather than plane. (Check out my discussion with Riverford this instagram post, where they say that air-freight creates 40-50 times the greenhouse gas emissions as sea freight[xi].) A particularly bad combination as far as carbon emissions go is soft-fruit (which can’t be transported by ship) that is out of season, so is already high in air-miles.
It’s worth checking out which fruits and veg come by sea (or land) and which by air. (All Riverford’s overseas food comes by ship or land, not air.)
How eating less meat compares to other climate-saving actionsThe Environmental Working Group (EWG) have produced a great Meat-Eaters Guide, which shows what cutting down (not totally cutting out) your meat consumption can measure up to.
Over a year:
- If you eat one less burger a week, it’s like taking your car off the road for 320 miles or line-drying your clothes half the time.
- If your four-person family skips meat and cheese one day a week, it’s like taking your car off the road for five weeks – or reducing everyone’s daily showers by 3 minutes.
- If your four-person family skips steak once a week, it’s like taking your car off the road for nearly three months.
- If everyone in the U.S. ate no meat or cheese just one day a week, it would be like not driving 91 billion miles – or taking 7.6 million cars off the road.[xii]
Check out this very interesting table from Green Eatz[xiii]
|Rank||Food||CO2 Kilos Equivalent per Kilo||Car Miles Equivalent per Kilo|
And if a kilo of food is too much to consider, then here's a graph showing how many miles 4oz (or 112g of food would get you):
Reducing your family’s carbon footprint through your diet.As with everything to do with the environment, nothing is black and white, or straightforward and easy. It’s a grey, complicated area, which needs time and energy to look into thoroughly.
That said, some key take-aways should be:
- ANY reduction in meat consumption is good – especially lamb and beef
- Alongside this, a reduction in dairy – especially cheese and eggs – will help too
- Eating seasonally will reduce the carbon impact of the fruit and vegetables you eat
- It’s not an all or nothing game – just doing something will help.
Carbon Footprint Calculators
As ever, with love from our family to yours,
Endnotes / References[i] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/zero-carbon/food-carbon-footprint & https://www.carbonbrief.org/uk-could-cut-food-emissions-17-per-cent-by-sticking-to-healthy-diet & https://www.vox.com/2014/7/2/5865109/study-going-vegetarian-could-cut-your-food-carbon-footprint-in-half